June 15th just passed, marking the 17th anniversary of a strangely inspiring play. Yes, I’m talking about just one play in a life of countless games.
A left-handed starting pitcher from the University of Michigan, Jim Abbott had a relatively successful first 7 years in the Major Leagues. He compiled a 78-82 record with a 3.77 ERA while finishing 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting in 1991, going 18-11 with a 2.91 ERA in 243 innings.
After playing for the California Angels in his first 4 seasons, Abbott was traded to the New York Yankees after the ‘92 season. On September 4th of 1993, he etched his name in the history books, tossing a no-hitter on the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium.
Abbott was coming off his worst outing of the season 5 days earlier when he allowed 7 earned runs on 10 hits in just 3.2 innings against the Cleveland Indians. Amazingly, in true baseball fashion, Cleveland was again the opponent as Abbott held them hitless with the aid of some terrific defense.
Of course, thus far I’ve left out the most astounding part: As I’m sure most of you know, Jim Abbott did all of this playing with one hand. Born with a right arm that ends about where his wrist would be, Abbott only had a stub where his right hand should exist. An inspiration to all who say, “I can’t.”
By deftly sliding his glove onto his left hand after each pitch – and a ton of work perfecting the move – Abbott silenced every doubter from Little League through MLB. His left arm fired bullets and his athleticism made him a strong defender, as he continually proved he had the skill to not only play, but excel.
While his accomplishments in the big leagues were somewhat surprising (after all, these are the best of the best), Abbott had been collecting accolades for years – more than most “two-handed” baseball players.
At the age of 11, Abbott threw a no-hitter in his very first Little League game. In his senior year of high school, he had a ridiculous 0.76 ERA, won 10 games, and struck out more than two hitters per inning.
Abbott beat out Basketball Hall-of-Famer David Robinson as the country’s top amateur athlete, becoming the first baseball player to win the AAU’s Sullivan Award, an award that has been handed out longer than the Heisman.
Abbott then earned baseball’s top amateur honor – the Golden Spikes Award – winning over another future Hall of Famer, Ken Griffey, Jr.
The following year, Abbott won the Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year award – the first baseball player ever to take home that honor. Later in 1988, the southpaw continued to impress by hurling a complete game in the Olympics to give Team USA a 5-3 victory over Japan to win the Gold Medal.
Despite all of these amazing feats, the one thing Abbott had never done was collect a base hit in Major League Baseball – the toughest thing to do in all of sports. He played in the American League from ’91-’96 where the designated hitter stood in his way.
In 1997, MLB started Interleague play where AL teams would play in some NL ballparks, requiring the pitchers to hit. Unfortunately for Abbott, he went 2-18 with a 7.48 ERA the year before and struggled in the spring of ’97, prompting the Angels to release the 29-year-old before Opening Day.
He sat out all of 1997, but fought his way back to the Chicago White Sox in ’98 where he only got 5 starts, all against AL teams in September. However, he did go 5-0 with a 4.55 ERA, which led him to look for another starting gig in 1999.
Cue the 1999 Milwaukee Brewers, who just so happened to switch from the AL Central into the NL Central one year earlier.
Coming off their 6th straight losing season (out of 12), they needed a left-handed starter and Abbott needed a new club. Both player and team saw a fit and had no worries about Abbott’s ability to bat in the NL.
After a solid Spring Training on the mound, Abbott was awful in his first 3 starts, going 0-3 with an 11.20 ERA (17 ER in 13.2 IP). He actually pitched some in relief, but went back to starting full time and picked up his 1st win on May 30, “improving” his record to 1-5.
Offensively, Abbott started the year 0-for-12 with 7 strikeouts through June 4th, though he did get down 3 sacrifice bunts. Considering his poor pitching performances as well, you started to get the sense he’d never get that 1st MLB hit.
That’s one of the ways baseball is such a great game. On June 15, it seemed like just another game in the middle of the daily rhythms of baseball, though the unsuspecting crowd would bear witness to another fascinating athletic display that also speaks to the strength of the human spirit.
It was a normal evening for baseball at rundown Milwaukee County Stadium. Thanks to the fans of the visiting Chicago Cubs, nearly 41,000 fans were on hand to see Jon Lieber square off against Jim Abbott between the new NL Central rivals.
There were some interesting items related to the game. Geoff Jenkins, playing in his first full season with the Brewers, was batting 8th. It’s not often you see a player with a 1.050 OPS hitting in front of the pitcher nearly 3 months into the season.
For the Cubs, Sammy Sosa started in center field. Strange until you realize his fellow outfielders were Henry Rodriguez and Glenallen Hill. At shortstop, it was future Brewers’ strikeout king Jose Hernandez who would join Milwaukee the following year.
Otherwise, it seemed like an uneventful evening until the bottom of the 4th inning. With the game tied at 1, the Brewers had Sean Berry at 2nd with 2 outs and Jenkins due to bat. Despite being early in the contest, the Cubs elected to walk Jenkins to pitch to Abbott.
As fate would have it, I was in the stands that night. As the veteran hurler walked to the plate, a noticeable buzz went through the crowd. Whispers of “he’s gonna do it here” echoed throughout the old wooden seats. Of course, every time he batted fans spoke of a similar fate.
Abbott stepped into the box, wrapped his left hand around his right “stub” and the handle of the bat, and taunted Lieber with a pair of faux swings toward the mound.
On the first offering, Abbott ripped a frozen rope toward short – the crowd cheered, then went briefly silent, then roared again – as Hernandez came within inches of snagging the line drive. Berry rumbled around to score the go-ahead run, though Jenkins was gunned down at 3rd by Sosa.
But it didn’t matter, the damage was done. Another notch on the belt of a man who accomplished so much in baseball. With or without the hit, 1999 would be the last of his 10 seasons – and he left having proved he could even hit.
(He would actually get a 2nd hit later that year – also against Jon Lieber, because baseball is funny like that. That time it was at Wrigley Field to drive in a pair of runs, including Jenkins.)
The best part was, he did it all while countless others doubted him, either out of ignorance, envy or a simple lack of faith in the drive and ability of someone who loved the game.
Abbott’s first Major League hit wasn’t his greatest feat and it’s just a footnote in the history of the game; however, his lone season in Milwaukee – while mostly forgettable – should be remembered for one of the many terrific nuances of America’s Pastime.